Imagining Yourself Into the Mind of the Sandy Hook Shooter: It’s Not Just About the Guns
by Michael Mulhern
The Sandy Hook School shooting was devastating for so many people. Twenty children and six adults, gunned down by a twenty year-old with multiple military weapons, died. If we can imagine ourselves into the mind of the shooter, perhaps will be better poised to protect people in the future.
Understanding the psychological conditions that lead to such atrocities can help us create interventions that thwart them. Clarifying what we know, what we don’t know and how to anticipate is a good way to start. While the gun matter is crucial, in this blog I will focus on the mind that chooses to massacre instead of the weapon itself.
First, let’s identify the mental disorders that can lead to violent crime. Distinguishing the differences between those who are likely to harm others and those who are not is the first step.
Some illnesses involve ruthless aggression and others involve paralyzing inaction. Some are characterized by a lack of conscience and others by too much conscience. Some mentally ill people benefit from strong limits and severe consequences and others from gentle support and exploration. Despair can manifest as irritability or over-compliance with authority.
The wrong approach can exacerbate an illness, so it is important to get it right.
Why would someone slaughter twenty children and six adults in a school setting?
- Perhaps the murderer was paranoid or psychotic – not aware of what he was doing. Psychotic people might hear voices telling them harm others or have the delusion (a fixed false belief) that a violent action is a just action.
- Maybe the murderer was a sociopath or an anti-social personality – aware of what he was doing but without a conscience or concern for others. Some, not all, sociopaths have sadistic tendencies and derive pleasure out of torturing others and seeing them suffer.
- The murderer might have had narcissistic injury and rage – fragile self-esteem, low resilience and a wish to prove his worth or power. For example, someone who has been or feels he has been bullied, humiliated or marginalized can be filled with revenge fantasies. Imagining that he will become notable, cool and famous or even worthy of respect via his crime can be a big motivator.
Some people who are abused become depressed, inhibited, and overly conscientious. Others act out. A shift from a passive to an aggressive stance might be a way of trying to take control when one feels helpless.
- An impulse control disorder – sudden rages, retaliations or unrestrained actions may have coexisted with any of the above.
- The murderer could have had a combination of the above, i.e. more than one diagnosis.
What was the catalyst that provoked him to act so brutally at that moment? Can we anticipate triggers to circumvent disasters?
Triggers will often seem trivial to a rational person. An irrational person can transform a “nothing” into a monumental injustice in his or her mind.
Did the shooter fear that his mother was determined to “put him away”? Was he opposed to moving away from his childhood home?
Did someone look at him the wrong way?
We will never know, but it is good to try to surmise what might set someone off.
Even if the trigger makes no sense to you, it doesn’t matter, because people have their reasons and distortions. Ask questions so you can understand. This might rein inseething rage and/or budding terror or terrorism. Fragile people misinterpret the facts, exaggerate the fear, or feel that something is a slight when it is not ­– they feel paranoid or sure that others are out to get them.
How does paranoia lead to criminal behavior?
Paranoid delusions, intermittent or ongoing, are a form of psychosis – or not being in touch with reality. Remember, a delusion is a “fixed false belief.” Paranoid delusions might include the unshakable notion that aliens will invade your space, burglars will steal your belongings, your home or school is contaminated, or you have been betrayed or judged when this is not the case.
If a child has angry expressions, makes animal noises and presses “against the wall” while edging down the school hall as this shooter apparently did, (The Week, December 28, 2012), this could suggest paranoid fears.
Note that not all eccentric behaviors indicate mental illness.
Paranoid people are guarded and try to protect themselves. At some point they can become aggressive as a form of self-defense against the imagined assault. The person is convinced that they are shielding themselves against atrue threat.
- Some times a person does want to do you harm so this is not paranoid.
- Either imagined or real persecution can lead to a desire for revenge, but the paranoid person must be distinguished from the non-paranoid person to determine the proper intervention.
- Never argue with a paranoid deluded person, or offer logic to make them see the light. This only increases their fear and anxiety. They then feel more alone with the problem and defensively staunch in their belief. Do not agree with the delusion either –just convey that you know that they are afraid.
- Some people who function reasonably well in professional or social situations can harbor powerful paranoid delusions.
- The paranoia can be circumscribed- focused on a single issue or person – and not evident unless the stimulus is presented.
- Some people have a paranoid personality – a general suspiciousness, and a tendency to distort. They also can function in work settings because if they have good social skills they can suppress the paranoia. It is very hard to make them realize that they are paranoid. They are convinced that that they know truths and secrets that you do not. They think they are rational.
- Note that being a very sensitive person does not render you a paranoid personality.
- One needn’t be schizophrenic to be temporarily psychotic or deluded as is commonly thought.
- A PARANOID, PSYCHOTIC PERSON WHO BECOMES MORE AGITATED OR ISOLATED NEEDS EVALUATION AND PERHAPS MEDICATION. There is no shame in this. One can go back to work, to family, to life and to feeling a whole lot better with the proper treatment.
- Untreated paranoia can have disastrous consequences so it needs to be recognized.
Was this shooting planned or spontaneous and why does that matter? Sociopaths verses psychotics.
- Pre-meditated actions might indicate sociopathy (personality disorder) – the calculated planning of a heartless, egotistical, greedy person. Some might just call this evil. This person knows the difference between right and wrong but does not care.
- Spontaneous actions might indicate psychosis (psychotic disorder) – not being in touch with reality or a having a deranged mind. This person does not know the difference between right and wrong.
- The treatment for these two conditions which both lead to transgressions against others is VERY different.
- To repeat: paranoid, psychotic people are fearful and sometimes aggressive. Medication and gentle emotional support can help them feel safer and less inclined to retaliate against imagined perpetrators.
- Sociopaths are charming, seductive masters of deception. They lie, steal, cheat and throw others under the bus with no remorse. They commit unconscionable deeds, cover their tracks well and assign the blame to someone else. They leave a trail of damaged lives and skip on to the next situation.
Often their charisma blinds people to their evil actions. If the consequences from their cruel, greedy or unethical actions are severe enough, they might be motivated to stop.
Since they are generally unfeeling –without a conscience and without true concern for others (they can fake it well) – the fact that they destroyed someone else’s life does not have an impact on them. If their own life is affected, if they are forced to lose what is important to them, they might care enough to change their ways. They need strong boundaries and clear consequences.
Do not coddle a sociopath as it encourages transgressions and their sense of entitlement. On the other hand, a psychotic or delusional person can be helped by gentleness.
Women can be severe sociopaths masquerading as vulnerable, distraught victims. Many people just can’t get their mind around the idea of a lying, thieving, perpetrating, greedy female who is attractive, appears gentle, concerned and kind and who sheds tears.
- Do not collude with paranoid delusions because this fosters unwarranted retaliations, aggressive behavior and irreconcilable damage.
- Try to tell the difference between imagined and true slights when you listen to someone’s story. Is the narrator reliable?
- Note: A paranoid (psychotic, deluded), vengeful (narcissistically injured) person with a lack of conscience (sociopath, no remorse) is a dangerous person.
Why six and seven year olds?
All murders are horrifying, but there is something uniquely disturbing, disillusioning and incomprehensible about the murder of innocent, young children in a school setting. It does not fit into a revenge category in a rational way. Why would anyone shoot six and seven year olds in their classrooms?
- The unconscious– the deepest part of the mind– is illogical, but it expresses hidden, true parts of the self. It harbors instinct, conflict, and true motivation or feeling. For example, envy or even envy of goodness (there is such a thing) can run rampant in the unconscious. A deranged mind will try to destroy that which he envies, craves, or desires but cannot ever have or be.
- It is so important to understand a person’s fantasy life because it offers clues to what is floating around deep down.
- The freedom to fantasize is a sign of mental health but anyone with suicidal or homicidal fantasies with true intent to act needs to be evaluated and most likely contained. This can be tricky to determine because some people are dramatic but would never take action.
- If one is tempted to buy a weapon because of an unresolved, aggression it is good to achieve insight as it might curb violent action.
- Some people (including therapists) minimize aggression and want to see the person as a vulnerable victim of past or present. This is a huge mistake. If someone is a perpetrator, they need to be confronted and called to account in order to get better. You have to deal with the aggression.
What does the murderers own age have to do with it? Are people more prone to murder in late adolescence?
- Adolescence is in the differential for psychotic disorders, so we want to be careful about putting guns into hands directed by brains that are not completely formed or hormones that are out of control. Perhaps wait till after age 25.
- We want to know whether substance abuse is a problem as this can distort one’s thinking.
- Sometimes people have their first psychotic break in their late teens or early twenties, and turn out to have schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or schizoaffective disorder, which is sort of a combination.
What does hard wiring – one’s genetic make up- have to do with it? What if there is a confusing mixture of traits such as depression with psychotic features versus pure depression?
- A combination of high levels of testosterone (associated with aggressive, impulsive behavior,) low levels of serotonin (associated with depression) and a psychotic core (paranoia in the hard-wiring) can make someone dangerous.
- If the depression and paranoia are properly treated, one is less prone to despairs that lead to aggressive action.
- Some depressions and paranoid states are situational or triggered by events. Others are hard-wired and long standing.
- The psychiatric picture is not always neat or clear. People can have a mixture of traits and diagnoses. They almost never fit into neat categories.
- The best we can do is to listen, observe, assess accurately, treat appropriately, contain dangerousness and not deny or minimize (or in some cases maximize) what we are dealing with.
Does easy access to weapons, e.g. having them around the house, seed violent fantasies?
This depends on the person’s susceptibility. It is true that guns don’t murder, people murder, but certain people are more at risk for picking up the gun and committing a crime.
- People with personality disorders who lack a conscience, feel entitled and are prone to rage should not have access to guns.
- People who experience paranoia or psychotic episodes should not have weapons lying around in case the fantasies take an aggressive turn.
- Pistols or rifles for self-protection or hunting are one thing for people who have self- control and a rational mind, but a weapon that can slaughter multiple people in minutes is not a rational choice for self-protection or sport. The former has a practical end and the latter seems to be more about fulfilling a fantasy of power.
- As Piers Morgan on CNN suggested, perhaps these military assault weapons should not be easier to purchase than 6 packs of Sudafed.
Does watching violent media make someone more prone to violence?
Research suggests that too much exposure to violence through media can blur boundaries, numb emotions and decrease compassion. It can increase aggression.
(Anderson, Craig A. "Violent Video Games: Myths, Facts, and Unanswered Questions." apa.org. American Psychological Association, n.d. Web. 20 March 2012.)
(Harding, Anne. "Violent video games linked to child aggression " cnn.com. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc, 3 Nov. 2008. Web. 19 March 2012)
- If someone is isolated, fragile and suggestible and his or her fantasy life takes over, he/she may lose a grasp of right and wrong in a civilized society. He may be more inclined to identify with a virtual, virulent figure.
- We all have a need to deal with aggressive or sadistic parts of the self. Sorting out repressed rages or retaliations through watching a movie or playing a game is a healthy choice.
- People who are unable to grasp that this movie or game is not a model for living but rather an entertaining deviation, need to be monitored.
- In general, talking to a child about what he or she saw and asking questions helps them maintain a strong sense of reality verses fantasy.
All persons with mental illness are served by empathic understanding, but not all are served by sympathy, especially sociopaths.
- Sympathy can encourage a sociopath to continue his violations.
- Empathy and sympathy are not the same.
- Sympathy involves caring but not necessarily understanding who the person is and how they work.
- Empathy means being able to put your self in the other person’s shoes and get what it means to be them.
- Usually an empathic person is seen as kind, giving and understanding. However, empathy is not always used in the service of goodness.
- Despots, tyrants, dictators and sociopathic criminals can have a razor sharp understanding of their victims and so they know exactly how to hurt them in the worst way. By understanding others’ vulnerabilities all too well, empathy can be used as a weapon.
- Yet when used to help others, empathy is much more effective than sympathy.
- When you “get” what drives someone and an honest conversation begins they can change. The jig is up. When people express their “truths,” feel heard, and feel understood by an interested party, they are more likely to find the right path.
- Helping someone acknowledge and work with the truth is the greatest support.
- In the case of someone who has aggressive or violent tendencies, confrontation is crucial. It is empathic to confront and un-empathic to coddle. They need to feel anxiety or discomfort with their behavior in order to stop it.
- In some cases, it is more therapeutic to instill anxiety rather than remove it.
One must acknowledge and address aggressive drives in people who violate others. Aggressive drives can be channeled in constructive or destructive ways.
- Denialof the truth about a loved one’s brutality can lead to ongoing agony or sudden tragedy. It is hard to see a loved one as a sick, destructive person as we so want this not to be the case. This scenario is actually quite common.
- Denial is understandable, but being honest about the aggression and enforcing consequences better expresses your love and goodness. Enablers worsen the situation for themselves and others. The truth can feel like a huge loss, but it is the better choice. If kept from violating, one can stay out of prison and others won’t suffer.
- We might be reluctant to enforce limits because this can feel unkind, rigid, artificial, uncomfortable, mean or ungenerous. For certain perpetrators limits are a life and death matter – both for the perpetrator and those that would cross his or her path.
- Some families are ashamed and want to hide what is happening behind closed doors. Families and loved ones can be terrorized for a lifetime without anyone suspecting a thing. They can become numb to the abuse. The denial and fear can be so strong that one neglects his or her “duty to report” to authorities.
- There is no need for guilt or shame or secrecy. The loved one’s pre-disposition is NOT YOUR FAULT.
- Great parents can produce sociopathic offspring. While you may share DNA, you can be nothing alike.
- Sometimes nurture cannot combat nature no matter how much love is given.
How does the legal picture intersect with the psychiatric picture?
- Some mental illnesses lead to aggression and criminality and others lead to inhibition and passivity.
- Some criminals have paranoid or psychotic mental illness.
- Other criminals are sociopaths who enjoy seeing others suffer, possess insatiable greed and are driven to destroy.
- If these conditions are detected early and properly managed some crimes can be prevented.
Do not provide guns or violent video games and movies to paranoid, narcissistically injured, psychotic or sociopathic people.
If you suspect that someone has one of the above conditions and might be dangerous, have a consultation with a professional. The wrong intervention can amplify the illness or the danger.
If it is someone in your family, do not feel ashamed or as if you are betraying them if you seek outside help.
While all of us have a mixture of virtuous and nefarious qualities, we can make choices about our behavior. There are those that wish to do good and those that wish to cause harm, those that need to build and those that need to tear down, those who feel good about doing the right thing and those who do not.
Often, these opposites stem from the same soil.